Acts 1, 6-14; John 17, 1-11
When I studied for my first degree in Sociology, one of the elements in the course was a unit on Social Psychology; and in the course of that unit I was introduced to the concept of ‘cognitive dissonance’. Now, you may think that you don’t know what ‘cognitive dissonance’ means; but you have almost certainly experienced it at some time during your life.
Cognitive dissonance refers to the discomfort we experience when we find a discrepancy or conflict between what we already know or believe and another piece of information, or interpretation or action. So, you might experience it if, for instance you believe you are an honest person, yet you take an opportunity which is presented you to steal; or if you have always maintained you are a pacifist, but find yourself hitting out at someone who’s just beaten you to the last parking space at the supermarket.
Cognitive dissonance also occurs when your prejudices or principles are challenged by some new piece of information, or by someone’s actions. Jesus made use of this in many of his parables: characters in them behave in unexpected ways – the Samaritan treats a Jew as a neighbour, the owner of the vineyard pays the late arrivals as much as those who have worked since dawn. Jesus’ intention in presenting people with these dilemmas is that they should resolve the psychological tension they feel from the dissonance by abandoning their prejudices or changing their beliefs.
According to Festinger, who first put forward the theory, people feel most comfortable when there is consistency between their beliefs. Therefore, when they experience cognitive dissonance they will deal with it in one of three ways (or a combination of these). They can change one or other of the beliefs which are inconsistent; they can try to acquire more knowledge which may reduce the apparent inconsistency, or allow them to accommodate both belief systems; or they can try to isolate themselves from the information that conflicts with their own beliefs, or to denigrate the source of the conflicting information, so that they don’t have to change.
Religious belief can be a rich source of cognitive dissonance. The very first research on the concept was a study of a group of believers in the US whose prophet had told them that the earth was to be destroyed by a flood in December 1954, but that the faithful believers would be saved by aliens in a space ship sent by extra terrestrial Guardians. When the flood didn’t happen, some of the less committed believers gave up membership of the cult; but the most committed members remained, convinced by a new prophecy which said that their faith and good works had saved the earth from the planned flood.
We twenty-first century Christians, who belong to one of the ancient world faiths, find ourselves constantly experiencing cognitive dissonance, because the scriptures and other foundation documents of our faith were written by people from a pre-scientific culture, whose way of understanding the world was very different from our own. And this season of Ascensiontide is one of the times when that dissonance becomes most acute. We read the biblical accounts where, apparently, a human body is transported up through a cloud, to be with God above the sky. We sing hymns which say things like ‘Now above the sky he’s king’ and ‘Hail the day that sees him rise, glorious to his native skies’. Yet, we have watched on TV as people walk on the moon, we have seen pictures from spacecraft of the distant planets, and even images from radio telescopes of galaxies, far distant from us in space and time, colliding, exploding and re-forming into new stars and galaxies.
If we believe in a physical universe like this, then where is there for the body of Jesus to go to? Perhaps that is why so many in the modern church tend not to celebrate Ascension Day. The fact that it always falls on a weekday makes it easier to ignore it. Yet, our faith ought not to be something we just pick up on Sundays, and ignore the rest of the week; and the Ascension is a major festival of the Church, which means it should have something important to teach us about the Christian faith. So how can we deal with this particular instance of cognitive dissonance.
You will remember the three strategies Festinger suggested people used to deal with cognitive dissonance. Employing the first we could abandon one or other belief system. Many of our contemporaries have abandoned their religious faith because they find it incompatible with a scientific understanding of the world – it is what those who argue so loudly in books and the media against religious belief, like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, believe is the only possible course for a rational modern person to take.
At the other extreme are people who won’t accept any of the scientific understanding of the world, or who reject the bits of that understanding that conflict with what they believe the Bible says – the people who are, to a greater or lesser extent, religious fundamentalists. Many of these will also try to denigrate the sources of scientific knowledge as a further protection against dissonance.
Or, you could compartmentalise your beliefs – and a lot of people do this unconsciously. So you operate with one set of knowledge about how the world works during your normal daily life – and you slip back into a pre-scientific understanding when you pray or come to church or discuss religious faith. But splitting your life up into sealed compartments is not a very satisfactory way of living – and if our faith is worth anything, it should be something that informs the whole of our lives.
So I believe that the only satisfactory way of dealing with dissonance between the thought systems with which we operate in everyday life, and those in which our faith is expressed, is to seek more knowledge and greater understanding, so as to reduce the conflict we feel between them. The question we need to ask is one posed by Leonard Hodgson and quoted by John Robinson in his book, ‘The Human Face of God’: “What must the truth have been if men who thought and spoke as they did put it like that?” And following on from that, John Robinson says we should ask, “What must we say for it to mean what they meant when they said things like that of Christ?”
When we read the Biblical accounts of the Ascension, we need to understand the hidden meanings, the ‘code’ as it were behind the language of the stories.
The Jews of the time used ‘body’ to stand for the totality of a person – their mind, spirit, soul, personality and history. So, for the Gospel writers, the body of Jesus encompassed his personal history, his teaching, his actions, and the feeling which his followers had about him: that in him they had met God in a new and complete way. The passion stories tell us that Jesus was killed and buried; the Easter narratives tell us that the ‘body’ of Jesus was raised by God from the realm of death, and that this raised body (recognizably Jesus, but different) was seen by many of his followers. This was a resurrection body, part of a new creation, and, Paul says, not flesh and blood.
Now, for the writers of the Bible, mountain tops were places of interaction with God, and the cloud signified the presence of God. So, when Luke tells us that the ‘body’ was taken from their sight into the cloud, he is sharing the disciples’ belief that the human being whom they knew as Jesus of Nazareth, was now being taken into God, and in future would be part of their understanding of what God was.
Included in that understanding was the belief that God reigns over the people of the earth from a place that is hidden from our sight and understanding – for the people of that time, this was the sky – so ‘the heavens’ became ‘Heaven’, the spiritual realm.
The Ascension story also looks forward to Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. From now on, the story tells us, (through the angelic messenger, another metaphor for the presence of God) the disciples will no longer encounter Jesus through his physical body, confined to a particular time and place, but through the Holy Spirit; and that Spirit will empower all who follow Christ to continue his ministry through the whole world and through all time. Through it, Christ will always be available to everyone, in a way that the human Jesus was not.
What then is the Ascension story telling us? It is telling us that there is a dimension to life beyond that which can be seen and touched and measured by scientific means, a spiritual dimension which believers know is as real as the physical world. The Ascension story describes a moment when that spiritual world, is for a moment, more open than usual to our human understanding.
It completes the story of the Incarnation, by telling us that Jesus of Nazareth, a human being who was so completely open to God that those who met him believed he had in some way come from the spiritual world, was, after his death, absorbed into God, so that our knowledge of him becomes part of our understanding of God.
It is a story that tells us that the physical body of Jesus is no longer of any importance. From this moment on we will know him, relate to him, and be empowered by him through the Holy Spirit – unseen, but nonetheless, real – which is the Spirit both of Jesus, and of God the Father and Creator.
Because we struggle to understand and express all of these deep truths about God, who we know and experience as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are probably always going to have to fall back on the picture or code language in which the Bible and the Creeds are written. But so long as we remember that they are just pictures, to help us express the inexpressible reality which is God, we shouldn’t be too much troubled by ‘cognitive dissonance’.